Their discovery, detailed in a paper to be published in the October 7 issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Series B, affirms the existence of the well-known savanna elephant and the recently recognized forest elephant of central Africa. But it also suggests that the elephants of west Africa, which live in both the forest and savanna, represent a third, genetically distinct population that has been diverging from the other two groups for some two million years.
Biologists and conservationists now widely accept the designation of two species of elephants: Asian and African. The UCSD discovery could, if confirmed by additional genetic evidence, split the African group into three distinct species or subspecies.
"This discovery is important, because the west African elephants are threatened with extinction as a result of human activities," says David S. Woodruff, a professor of biology and chair of the Ecology, Behavior and Evolution Section of UCSD's Division of Biological Sciences. "If these findings are confirmed, zoologists and conservation managers will need to recognize three different species of African elephants, all of which need protection because their numbers are declining."
"Knowing that forest elephants are very different genetically from savanna elephants means that overpopulation in some southern African savanna parks should not lead to a relaxation of the protection for elephants elsewhere, especially in the forests," says Lori S. Eggert, the first author of the paper and a postdoctoral researcher at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. "These populations are not exchangeable, either ecologically or genetically."